Donovan Manuel cried as he rode the bus home, the first time since he had been forced to stop playing football.
His parents removed him from his team in ninth grade because his academic performance wasn’t up to their standards. So, Manuel was forced to watch his peers play games from the stands.
Something Manuel loved had been taken away. He called it one of the most turbulent times of his young life. He also said it served as motivation to ensure it never happened again.
School wasn’t a problem from that point on for the eventual FIU linebacker.
“When you’re out there on the field, sometimes things may not go your way,” Manuel said in an interview with HERO Sports. “You might give up a big play here or there or miss a couple tackles, and to me that’s the biggest thing is how you’re going to respond.”
“That helped me become a better person,” he added.
Manuel not only became an all-state player at Stockbridge High School in Georgia, he went on to play for East Tennessee State and was a 2021 HERO Sports FCS All-American. Then he transferred to FIU and earned All-Conference USA honorable mention accolades.
He’s a 2023 HERO Sports G5 Preseason All-American going into this season.
And, maybe just as important to Manuel, he earned a college degree and is taking part in grad school this year.
“I definitely think he’s a first-team all-conference type player,” FIU head coach Mike MacIntyre told HERO Sports. “He could have an opportunity to play at the next level, too.”
Donovan Manuel Grows Up In Ellenwood, Georgia
Participating in sports, Manuel said, is how his parents tried to keep him out of trouble. And football was one of the first he picked up.
He fell in love with it right away.
“It may sound a little crazy, but I like hitting people,” Manuel, who’s from Ellenwood, Georgia, said. “You can legally hit somebody and not get in trouble for it. In between the lines, all my problems outside of football, I can forget about them.”
Manuel was a Region 4-AAAAA Defensive Player of the Year. In his senior year, he totaled 88 tackles, six for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
He felt he was under-recruited coming out of high school, but that was in part because he was a late bloomer. He received most of his scholarship offers as a senior.
ETSU was one of the first schools who showed interest. Though he wanted to stay near home and go to a school like Kennesaw State, his father told him he needed to move farther away.
“I believe if you don’t get out of that comfort zone, you won’t be able to grow,” Manuel said. “At one point, I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. That really helped me out a lot.”
Manuel redshirted in 2018, then played in 12 games in 2019. He finished that year with 65 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, three passes defended, and two quarterback hurries.
The following year, he made the HERO Sports All-American Sophomore Team. In five games during the 2020 season, he tallied 44 tackles, six TFLs, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.
The following year, he made the All-American third team. He paced ETSU with 124 tackles while contributing 9.5 TFLs, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble.
Though winning a SoCon Championship with ETSU in 2021 is one of his favorite football memories, Manuel believed it was time to move on. He chose FIU because “this is where I needed to be,” he said.
Donovan Manuel And FIU Become A Perfect Fit
Manuel’s transfer to FIU has already paid off.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound all-conference honorable mention linebacker was second on the team in 2022 with 97 tackles to go with 8.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, a fumble recovery, and a sack.
MacIntyre said Manuel’s physicality sets the tone for the rest of the defense. He could recall multiple occasions of a thunderous hit by Manuel energizing the rest of the squad.
“Donovan is a physical linebacker. Very bright young man,” MacIntyre said. “Very, very physical and just an excellent player. A positive young man, a very good leader, and just an excellent person.”
Manuel is in charge of communication in several ways for the Panthers.
At inside linebacker, he is constantly talking with the rest of the defense to make sure everyone is in the right position and knows what an offense may do based on its pre-snap formation. And that skill should only improve now that Manuel’s played a full year at FIU. MacIntyre noted how he communicates will be a “gigantic part of our defense improving.”
Manuel shows leadership qualities outside of games as well. If he knows a teammate might be going through a rough time, MacIntyre added, he’ll make sure to support him, even if it’s with a simple pat on the back.
MacIntyre called Manuel a selfless player.
“He’s looking out for other people all the time,” MacIntyre said. “That’s really big. That’s what you want your leader to do.”
Manuel believes the potential is high for FIU’s defense, which was in the bottom half of Conference USA for yards and points allowed last season. Winning a league title and reaching a bowl game are among his goals.
But until then, Manuel has been calling on his teammates to focus on smaller details.
Lining up correctly. Fulfilling assignments. Continue coalescing as a team.
“Just continuing a relentless pursuit,” Manuel said. “Continue to get better, and there’s no telling where we’ll be at the end of the season.”
The Panthers hope that mentality, instilled in him since those days of having to watch high school games from the stands, will lead to a prolific 2023 season.